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FBI Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) hunts the most notorious serial killers. Graham is both gifted and cursed with an extraordinary ability: he can think like his prey, seeing what they see and feeling what they feel. What he doesn't know is that his new partner is the most notorious serial killer of all. While pursuing an especially troubling cannibalistic murderer, Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) teams Graham with a highly respected psychiatrist – a man with a taste for the criminally minded: Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). Dr. Lecter tests Graham every step of the way, toying with him and playing a game all his own, while they work to unravel the mystery and catch the killer.  Like only Lecter can, he twists Graham's mind, daring him to question everything he knows about others...and himself. (From Lionsgate/NBC’s official synopsis)

Hannibal: Season One
Do you remember your first thoughts when you heard they were making a weekly television series starring Thomas Harris’ Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter? Was it something like, ‘Wow, that’s an incredibly stupid idea’? Did you think it would work any better when you learned it was going to be a reboot that took place before Harris’ books, or did you remember that there was already a prequel movie called Hannibal Rising that was so bad and unconcerned with the tenets of the character that it threatened to ruin the franchise? Were you so convinced that this entire enterprise wouldn’t work that you didn’t even bother to look into the creative team behind the show? Me too. It looks like we jumped the gun a little bit here.

Hannibal, the series, was developed by Bryan Fuller, the man behind such morbid-meets-twee concoctions as Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies. The idea of Fuller, a man whose career is steeped in lighthearted and sweet-natured fare, acting as show-runner for an adaptation of a genre re-defining crime/horror novel series is as intriguing as Nip/Tuck and Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk taking on a grab-bag horror show like American Horror Story. Fuller and co-executive producers David Slade ( Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) populated their directing staff with the likes of Peter Mendak ( The Changeling), Guillermo Navarro (Academy Award-winning cinematographer of Guillermo del Toro’s films), James Foley ( Glengarry Glen Ross), and Tim Hunter ( Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood), John Dahl ( Justified, True Blood). Slade himself acted as director for the pilot, episode seven, and the season finale. Apparently, if you throw enough talented people at an impossible adaptation, the problem can solve itself.

The most difficult trick this motley crew of creative minds pulls is that they make Hannibal Lecter interesting again. Long before the Dino de Laurentiis Company started driving the character into the ground with increasingly crummy movie adaptations, the character was softened by his pop-culture impact, including a number of spoofs, satires, and flat-out rip-offs. Everyone and their mom can do an impression of Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter and a few of us can even do a good Brian Cox, so the first step in recreating the character was casting someone with as strong of a presence as Mads Mikkelsen --and letting him put his own twist on it. Mikkelsen’s Lecter has almost everything in common with Hopkins’ Lecter on a moral/psychological level, but very little in common in terms of appearance, speech patterns, or physicality. Lecter also isn’t the series lead – Will Graham is. In fact, Lecter, by Harris’ definition, doesn’t really change, even at this relatively early point in his ‘development.’ The series’ writers seem to understand this, but also find themselves a little too enthralled with Lecter as a human being, which throws the formula off-balance. Sometimes, their attempts at humanizing the monster are successful, as in the case of his relationship with Will, which is both touching and tragic (more tragic for Will than Hannibal, obviously). Other times, Lecter’s part in the story interrupts the plot and demystifies the character. Again, the writers appear to know this and are constantly pulling back on the reins to maintain fidelity with Harris’ original vision. It’s both commendable and awkward – sort of a ‘have their cake and eat it too’ battle between a greater, over-arcing plot and standard police procedural television.
 
Hannibal: Season One
This imbalance is the show’s most persistent problem. All the ingredients are on the table, but the writers aren’t sure how to mix them yet. This wiggly equilibrium is caused mostly by the battle waged between serialized and episodic storytelling. The show ran with a ‘cable-sized’ first season of only 13 episodes, rather than the full 24-26 most major network dramas tend to run. 13 episodes is plenty of time to tell one long-form story (perhaps even the ideal way to go about, as proven by the patchy quality of shows, like Lost), but it doesn’t leave a lot of time to loiter with standalone episodes. Hannibal is really three shows in one. The first show, which we’ll call The Will Graham Show, is a psychological study of an FBI criminal profiler, who is slowly driven insane by his uncanny ability to empathize with psychopaths. The second show, which we’ll call In Treatment with Dr. Lecter, is about a brilliant psychiatrist that balances his fascination with a particularly disturbed patient and his secret life as a serial killer. The third show, which we’ll call Jack Crawford and Friends, is a relatively typical, freak-of-the-week, forensic crime series. These shows are all clearly related, but the connective tissues sometimes feel either incidental to the story being told or coincidental. I get the feeling that these are growing pains, though, and that future seasons will weave everything together with more grace and ease.

The writers are sure to load the show with callbacks to Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal, but it’s nice to see that they aren’t completely anchoring themselves to Harris’ canon. I appreciate that Hannibal is a reboot, not a proper prequel. It’s not hampered by an unnecessary period setting, nor is it required to stick to set events or make its audience any guarantees. There’s no set date for Clarice Starling’s introduction into the story or even a promise that she’ll survive her first episode when the time comes around. The writers seem willing to use the audience’s expectations against them, especially when they let Dr. Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) surgically disembowel Dr. Frederick Chilton (Raúl Esparza) – a character fans know will survive through to the original series, or at least until the end of Silence of the Lambs, when Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter announces he’s ‘having an old friend for dinner’ (a line that is referenced in a different episode).

Hannibal: Season One
Hannibal is, ultimately, more of an exercise in style than an exercise in storytelling. Those left uncharmed by the plotting and character study will likely still recognize how immaculate and beautiful each episode is. There are shades of Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott in the slick cinematography and production design, but Slade and the other directors actively avoid grit for precision. Fuller cites David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick as additional inspirational sources, but, besides Slade’s own work, the series’ surrealistic nightmares reminded me most of Lars von Trier’s soul-shattering geek-show, Antichrist. Hannibal also sports the most disturbingly gory images on network television. I am constantly (yet pleasantly) surprised by the amount of gore that the show gets away with, considering its primetime slot. Sure, shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad have changed the rules on what is acceptable for basic cable, but other network shows, even sex-crime shows like Criminal Minds and Law & Order: SVU, don’t approach the graphic violence Hannibal regularly revels in. The gruesome imagery is also creatively beautiful in a way that contrasts The Walking Dead’s grimy zombie attacks. People aren’t just murdered – they’re sliced, diced, gutted, castrated, and flayed. This season’s killers grow mushrooms on living flesh, strip the skin from their victims’ backs to turn them into angel wings, and even turn one poor sap into a working cello. Hannibal’s cruelest joke is the way it sardonically contrasts the dripping viscera against some of the most exquisite, mouth-watering culinary delicacies this side of the Food Network.

(Sideline note: the CG deer imagery is sort of amusing, because Christian Alvart’s Red Dragon ‘homage,’ Antibodies, ends with some incredibly unconvincing CG deer).

Hannibal: Season One

Video


Hannibal is presented 1.78:1, full 1080p video and, as stated in the feature section of this review, it is very pretty. Details are sometimes limited by strict focal practices and wide-angle lenses, but the scientific close-ups are needle sharp, as are complex clothing patterns. Guillermo Navarro’s episodes look slightly different, specifically during the gothic murder scenes, which feature a broader focus and these images tend to have more overall texture. The story begins in the fall, which informs the bulk of the autumnal palette – golden warm browns set against overcast blues, fading greens, and hard blacks. The consistent hue qualities are largely created via digital tinkering, but the interior palette control extends to set decoration and wardrobe. For example, the powder blue of the sanitary gloves the detectives/agents use during crime scene investigations shows up on the interior walls and articles of clothing. The same thing goes for the show’s very specific shade of blood red. Will’s empathic reenactments of the crimes usually feature a different palette (warmer, with a more limited yellow tint), a higher overall contrast, and more artificial film grain. The colours are pure and the gradations are smooth with only occasional issues with minor blocking and banding throughout some of the soft-focus backgrounds. Soft lighting and hard shadows play very nicely against each other, but, when grouped with the pinpointed focus, there are some seemingly unavoidable issues with blooming edges that look a lot like compression-generated edge enhancement. I think this, along with some film-like grain, made me think that perhaps the show had been shot 35mm, rather than digitally (it was not, it was shot using Arri Alexas).

Hannibal: Season One

Audio


It’s really difficult to designate the sound design of one television as ‘better’ than another, because it’s difficult to compare something fantastical, like Once Upon a Time, and something with amplified realism, like Breaking Bad. But, if someone demanded that I chose just one show with the most impressive sound design I’d probably have to pick Hannibal, because it has the most aggressively surrealistic and subjective sound I think I’ve ever heard from a TV format. This very loud DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is most aggressive when the audience is thrust into Will’s headspace. His empathic recreations are signified by a pendulum sound that swishes across the stereo speakers and opens the channels to amplified versions of incidental noises and abstract aural representations of his thinking process. Will’s anxiety and the dreams/hallucinations of the various lead characters are greeted with similar effects, none more impressive than the full channel sonic swirl that accompanies the character’s complete breakdown in the season finale. Dialogue-heavy sequences usually feature some basic musical influence, but natural ambience and incidental effects are usually minimized, unless the characters are engaged in some kind of action. The series’ music was composed by Brian Reitzell, who worked with Slade on 30 Days of Night. His scores are mostly concerned with setting an eerie mood that underscores the dialogue-heavy sequences, but he’s not above a brassy scare or driving, action-based rhythms. Reitzell is also credited as the show’s music supervisor and includes the likes of Vivaldi, Verdi, and Mozart.

Hannibal: Season One

Extra


The extras, which are spread across all three discs in this collection, include:
  • Commentary with Brian Fuller, David Slade, and Hugh Dancy on episode one, I]Apéritif[/I], and episode 13, Savoureux.
  • Hannibal Reborn (11:10, HD) – A general look behind the show’s production, including an early inception that starred Clarice Starling, Fuller’s choices to use Will Graham instead, selling the show to NBC with the assurance that it could be extremely violent, and the apparent promise that the events of Red Dragon will start sometime around season four.
  • A Taste For Killing (14:50, HD) – On Lecter’s love of food and the creations of chef Jose Andres’ various gourmet masterpieces that appear throughout the season.
  • A Symphony for the Slaughter (11:30, HD) – An exploration of the series’ music and sound design.
  • The FX of Murder (14:20, HD) – On the show’s various effects sequences, including make-up/practical work and the various CG animations/enhancements. The funniest bit is one about NBC objecting to naked butts during the first ‘angel’ murder tableau, but not the gore.
  • A deleted scene
  • Pilot episode storyboards
  • A gag reel


Interview subjects throughout the featurettes include Fuller, Slade, co-producer Martha De Laurentiis, culinary consultant Jose Andres, food stylist Janice Poon, composer Brian Reitzell, FX supervisors/producers Robert Crowther and Anthony Paterson, and actors Dancy, Mikkelsen, and Laurence Fishburne.

Hannibal: Season One

Overall


I can see Hannibal falling apart pretty easily and I can especially see it being dragged out far beyond the point that all the law enforcement characters start to look like incomparable idiots, but, if the writers allow themselves to proceed at a realistic pace and allow the story to end when it needs to, it could turn into something truly great. Obviously, I recommend that fans get their hands on this release – which features a strong HD transfer, an outstanding DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a decent selection of extras – but I also recommend that those viewers who are unsure where they stand on the series give it a second look. There’s quite a bit to absorb on a second viewing, especially for those of us that missed episode four, Œuf, which did not air due to controversy over the Sandy Hook murders.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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